The fourth novel in the Ascendant Kingdoms saga – a tale of war, heroism and sorcery from one of the most popular fantasy writers of recent years
“I thought that winning the battle meant we could stop fighting for a while,” Blaine McFadden grumbled as he swung his sword.
“Kill the cat and the rats multiply,” Piran Rowse muttered, landing a strike that took off his opponent’s right arm. The second swing sent the man’s head rolling.
Blaine had scant time for conversation as one of the nomads came at him in a fury. A flicker of his magic let him know where his opponent would be an instant before the man struck, just enough time for Blaine to be where the man didn’t expect. Another spark of magic made Blaine just fast enough to evade a killing strike as he roared in response and brought his own sword down in a lethal blow.
The Battle of the Northern Plains was supposed to have brought an end to fighting in Donderath, at least for a while. Four powerful warlords and an insane mage had been destroyed along with most of their armies. That left two enemy warlords and some vicious undead talishte, temporarily routed and pushed back to their strongholds to lick their wounds.
It should have brought a respite from the constant skirmishing and open battles. But here they were, just a few months later, on campaign again.
Not far away, two dark- haired men on horseback rode their galloping steeds while standing in their saddles, firing their bows again and again with lethal accuracy. Borya and Desya had grown up on the plains, and fighting the nomads was familiar work to them. The two brothers cut a swath right through the battle, and looked to be enjoying themselves far more than seemed sane. Just behind the combat line, Kestel Falke slipped among the wounded, slitting the throats of the fallen enemy soldiers.
Blaine and Piran were bloodied to the elbows, their cuirasses and tunics spattered with gore. The day was warm, and the sun made the pooled blood and corpses stink. Flies swarmed the fallen, buzzing around the living as if to anticipate their deaths. Blaine was soaked with sweat, aching and hungry, and he channeled all of his foul mood into the force he used to meet the next attack with a series of uncompromising blows.
Blaine swung and parried, hacking his way through a stand of three raiders. Off to the north, smoke rose from the wreckage of a town. Sondermoor had been a collection of sod and thatch houses, a blacksmith’s shop, and a gristmill, along with an inn that had long ago seen better days. Now, Sondermoor was a ghost town, and its residents lay where they had been slaughtered. The raiders had made off with anything of value: coins, food, whiskey, horses, and women. Sondermoor was the third outpost to fall to the nomads, and each incursion brought the raiders closer to the lands held by Blaine and his allies, the Solveig twins and Birgen Verner.
“They fight like Cursed Ones,” Blaine said as he and Piran finished off four more of the raiders.
“Yeah, well, they’ll have plenty of time to cool off once they’re across the Sea of Souls,” Piran remarked, cleaning his blade on the shirt of a dead nomad.
“Makes me wonder how many of them are still out there,” Blaine said, looking out toward the horizon.
“More than we want to admit,” Piran replied. “The Great Fire and the Cataclysm pretty much passed them by, so they didn’t have to rebuild and regroup, like the rest of us.”
Blaine nodded. “And before that, King Merrill didn’t want to deal with them, so his garrisons pushed them back toward the Lesser Kingdoms. Out of sight, out of mind.”
“That’s not going to work anymore,” Piran muttered. “Looks like they’ve decided to get a share of what’s left.”
The last few days had shown Blaine just how big a problem the raiders had become. In good times, the raiders spread out in small bands linked by blood and marriage. They were fierce warriors, and a tribe with twenty or thirty warriors was something even a seasoned troop of soldiers dismissed at their own peril. But now, united by hardship over the last year since the Cataclysm, the bands had gathered into larger tribes, thousands strong, fighting with desperation that came from scarce food and scant resources.
Waves of attacks had worn down the soldiers commanded by sibling warlords Rinka and Tormod Solveig. With more raiders massing for another assault, the Solveigs had called on the alliance Blaine had pieced together months before, requesting help from Blaine’s army and from that of Birgen Verner, the third warlord ally.
“They’ve retreated,” Piran observed, shading his eyes and looking toward the horizon. The raiders had withdrawn, and the warlords’ armies were under orders to pursue only so far, to keep the raiders from drawing them into an ambush.
“They’ll be back,” Blaine replied. “You heard what Borya said. The raiders actually don’t have a word for retreat. Their honor won’t let them leave until they’re victorious—or dead.”
Piran shrugged. “We can take care of that for them.”
Despite Piran’s bravado, they both knew it would not be that easy. Still, when Blaine had rallied a third of his army and come to the Solveigs’ aid, he had a plan in mind. Now that blood had been shed and they were in the thick of things, he hoped his plan worked.
“How sure are you about what Borya and Desya told us about the raiders?” Piran asked, giving Blaine a questioning glance.
“They’re our best source, since they’ve traveled all over the Western Plains,” Blaine replied. “If they’re right, and it’s possible to strike an accord, we’ll all be better off. We’ve got better things to do than fight.”
“You saw how the nomads came at us,” Piran protested. “And they’ve been attacking the Solveigs’ forces for a month. Do you really think they’ll even entertain the idea of an accord? And how would we believe them if they did?”
Blaine shrugged. “I guess we’re going to find out.”
The battle was done except for the looting. Kestel picked her way among the enemy dead, finding few items worth taking except for their well-forged swords. She and some of the other soldiers scavenged what they could find, making a pile at the edge of the battlefield. The Cataclysm had brought Donderath’s mining to a halt, and until more peaceful and prosperous times made it likely to restart, metal was at a premium. The nomads were known for their metalwork, and their sword blades were true, sharp, and strong. They were prized spoils of war.
“I saved the nicest two for us,” Kestel said, sauntering up to Blaine and Piran with a couple of still-bloody swords.
“Very considerate of you,” Blaine replied.
Kestel shrugged, with the hint of a tired, mischievous smile. “One of the perks of being on the victorious side,” she said.
“Begging your pardon, sir. What do you want us to do with the bodies, m’lord?” Captain Waren, one of Blaine’s commanders, gave a nod in acknowledgment to Piran and Kestel and waited for orders.
Blaine sighed. “If our intelligence is correct, those bodies are a bargaining chip,” he said. “Make sure they’re treated with respect, and covered to keep the birds away. Bring our own men back behind our lines and bury them the best you can.” He paused. “As for the villagers, gather them up and burn a house down over them.”
“Aye, sir.” Captain Waren turned and began shouting orders to his men as he walked away.
“I hate this part of it,” Blaine said after Waren was out of earshot.
“You thought being a warlord was all fun and games, did you?” Piran replied, raising one eyebrow. “I wouldn’t have put it that way,” Blaine said. “But then again, I never actually bargained on being a warlord.”
“That’s what you get for not telling your closest mates that you were a lord of any kind,” Piran retorted. Even now, he was not about to stop tweaking Blaine for not mentioning the title he had forfeited with his exile and conviction for murder. Piran, Blaine, and Kestel had been convicts together in the Velant prison camp, and their friendship ran deep.
“Like you told us everything,” Kestel replied with a snort. “I bet there are stories we still haven’t heard. We need to get you drunk again.”
Piran grinned. “Anytime, anywhere! Bring it on!”
Blaine gave an exaggerated sigh. “Maintain some level of decorum, please? We’re meeting with our allies.”
“Nothing like a fancy dinner after a good slaughter on the battlefield,” Piran said, sheathing his sword. “Kind of works up an appetite.”
“Not all of the barbarians were with the nomads,” Kestel muttered.
“Excuse me?” Piran said, looking up sharply. “Did you say something?”
“Me? Never.” Kestel’s grin showed how much she enjoyed the long-running friendly banter.
Blaine McFadden, the disgraced lord of Glenreith, the last of the original Lords of the Blood, had returned from exile in Edgeland at the top of the world with a handful of convict friends to set the magic right and restore the rule of law in a devastated land. Before the Cataclysm, Kestel had been the most sought-after courtesan in Donderath, but it was her work as a spy and assassin that earned her a ticket to Velant. Piran had been a promising young officer in the king’s army before his court-martial and exile. Piran had sworn his loyalty to Blaine, and Kestel had become Lady McFadden just a few months ago. Now, in the aftermath of restoring magic, Blaine was discovering how difficult it was to govern what they had fought so hard to win.
Blaine watched the cleanup until he was assured that Waren had matters well in hand. Borya and Desya emerged out of the smoke from the pyres and the dust clouds raised by the horses’ hooves. “Glad to see that everyone survived,” Borya noted as he swung down from his horse. Desya joined him, flushed from the fight. The twins had the same dark hair and dusky coloring of the Lesser Kingdoms and plains, with one notable exception. Both young men’s eyes had yellow, catlike irises with vertical black pupils, a change inflicted on them when they had been trapped in a wild-magic storm.
“You were right about how they’d engage,” Blaine said, greeting the twins with a hearty handshake and a slap on the shoulder.
“Classic plains warfare,” Desya replied. “Strike hard and refuse to go away. Retreat, and wait for negotiation. Repeat until someone comes out to talk.”
“Glad you were here to translate,” Piran replied. “In the rest of Donderath and Meroven, that’s a recipe for annihilation.”
Borya shrugged. “The nomads have lived on the wastelands and plains for a long, long time, largely left to themselves by the kingdoms on both sides of us. They have their own ways of doing things, and an approach to war that’s less wasteful. Make a show of strength, allow the other side to test their strength against yours, then hash out an agreement rather than slaughtering each other.”
“I’m willing to give their way a shot,” Blaine replied. “Since we all know how the win‑at‑any-cost version plays out.” The war between Donderath and neighboring Meroven had escalated over the years until a doomsday strike by battle mages devastated both sides and left magic dangerous and uncontrollable.
“You think the Solveigs and Verner will go for it?” Piran asked. “It’s going to take a lot for them to trust that their enemies make an agreement and all of a sudden become allies.”
“If things go the way we’ve planned, I think an agreement could solve a lot of problems,” Blaine answered, though part of him echoed Piran’s doubts. Nothing has gone easily so far. Maybe it’s time for our luck to change. “Let’s hope our allies see things our way.”
“Not a bad showing today, eh?” Birgen Verner rode up to join them, accompanied by two of his officers. Birgen was stocky and powerfully built, a career soldier.
“It’s never a bad day when you live through it,” Blaine commented. He was still taking the measure of his new allies. He and Verner’s father and the Solveigs had barely shaken hands on their alliance when an attack inked their agreement in blood.
“True enough,” Verner replied. He was a little older than Blaine, in his early thirties. A new scar creased one cheek, and his left thigh was tied up with a bandage, but he sat his horse as if nothing bothered him.
Some men thrive on battle, Blaine thought, while others regard it as a necessary evil. Piran is in the first group. Verner and I are weary of it already.
“Any idea how the Solveigs’ forces held up today?” Verner asked as he brought his horse up to ride alongside Blaine’s. “I couldn’t see their part of the battle from where my men were.” Kestel rode beside Blaine, on guard for trouble, while Piran dropped back to ride behind with Verner’s bodyguard.
“From what we could see, they did well,” Blaine replied. “At a cost, to be sure.” The Solveigs had been battling the Plainsmen the longest, and while their soldiers were brave and well trained, the toll of victory had been high.
“No end of it in sight, either,” Verner said. “Those nomads aren’t going to go away until they win, and we can’t let them do that. But wiping them out is going to be expensive.”
“I may have an alternative,” Blaine said, pleased to hear Verner make such a strong case against a purely military solution. “I was planning to put it out for discussion at dinner.”
Verner gave him an appraising look. “If you’ve got a better idea, I’m all for hearing it. Too many good men died today, and I don’t fancy having this go on indefinitely.”
“Neither do I,” Blaine assured him. “We might be able to turn this around—but it will take all of us to do it.”
It was a relatively short ride back to the Solveig twins’ fortress at Bleak Hollow. The name suited it. High stone walls rose from the flat land like bleached bones of an ancient, fell predator. Bleak Hollow was as stark as its surroundings, an outpost on the edge of civilization, a sentinel against the wilds.
“You’re really planning to go in there?” Piran questioned under his breath as they rode toward the massive wooden front gates.
“We were invited for dinner,” Kestel said in a reproving voice. “It would be rude to refuse.”
Blaine thanked the gods for Kestel’s social skill. Long accustomed to the vicious politics of King Merrill’s court, astute as a spy and with the sharpened instincts of a top assassin, Kestel could navigate any situation with ease. Knowing that she had his back made Blaine cautiously optimistic that the situation could end well.
The huge oaken doors swung open, revealing an ascetic bailey and keep. None of the buildings had the gracious extras of Quillarth Castle, King Merrill’s stronghold, or Blaine’s own manor, Glenreith. Bleak Hollow was meant to be a toehold of civilization against the lawless plains.
Rinka and Tormod Solveig were the masters of Bleak Hollow, a brother-and-sister warlord duo who were as mysterious as they were intriguing. Blaine had heard plenty of stories about them when they, too, had been exiled to Velant. He had seen both in battle, and acknowledged their formidable skills. But his alliance had been forged more from necessity than from longstanding knowledge, and he was curious to get a glimpse of his new allies in their own domain.
“Honored guests.” A gray-templed man in his middle years greeted them with hands clasped at chest level. “Lord and Lady Solveig are honored by your presence. Please, allow our grooms to care for your horses, and leave your swords with me while you dine. I assure you that all will be restored to you when the time comes for you to go.”
Piran glanced at Blaine, who nodded in the affirmative. Blaine surrendered his sword, secure in the knowledge that both Piran and Kestel had enough small, hidden weapons to wage a two-person war. Kestel had shared some of her secrets with Blaine, and he had his own hold-out dagger hidden where a casual observer was unlikely to find it.
Piran looked unhappy at the prospect, but turned over his sword as requested, and so did his officers. “I thought we were on the same side,” he muttered.
Blaine shrugged. “These days, trust is in short supply, and caution in abundance.” He gave Piran a look. “And you know you would have demanded the same thing if they came to Glenreith.”
Piran scowled. “Yeah, but that’s us. It’s different when someone else does it.”
Escorts showed them to guest rooms where they could wash off the grit and blood of the battlefield. Blaine was thrilled to find a room with three tubs of hot water drawn for their baths, as well as clean outfits for them to change into. A flask of whiskey with glasses on a table near the tubs was an unexpected indulgence.
Kestel crowded ahead of him, sipped the whiskey, and stirred the hot bath with the handle of a broom she grabbed from near the fire.
“What are you doing?” Piran asked, looking at her as if she had lost her mind.
Kestel was unmoved. “Verifying that everything is as it seems.”
“I notice she checks your tub and your whiskey and leaves me to fend for myself,” Piran groused good-naturedly.
“Just the chance I’ll have to take,” Kestel said with feigned angst and a wicked grin. “Personally, I can’t wait to climb in. I ache everywhere.”
The tubs grew cold far too quickly, and the flask drained even faster. Bells in the tower rang eight times, the signal that it was time to get ready to join the others for dinner. When they were dressed and ready, the seneschal of Bleak Hollow led them downstairs. Verner and his bodyguard were waiting for them in the foyer, and he looked as if he also had enjoyed the largesse of a hot bath and fresh clothing.
“It’s something when a hot bath and the safety to enjoy it is the ultimate luxury, isn’t it?” Verner mused when they regrouped. “Funny how the small things we used to take for granted loom so large these days.”
Two guards opened tall doors into a long, high-ceiling room. Tapestries on the walls regaled battles long past. Three large fireplaces, each with openings as tall as a man, sat darkened at one end of the room. A large, long table with chairs stretched the length of the room. Battle pennants from wars fought generations ago hung overhead, as well as hunting trophies and one suit of armor that looked as if it had been a spoil of war.
“Welcome.” Rinka Solveig met them in the doorway. It was the first time Blaine had seen her without the red leather armor she wore on the battlefield. Tonight, she wore a scarlet gown. Her blond hair was wrapped atop her head in a braid. Rinka Solveig was striking if not conventionally pretty. Her features were angular, not quite regular, but there was such a sense of character, clarity, and self-possession about her that she was memorable.
“My brother and I welcome you to Bleak Hollow,” she said, and gestured for them to enter the great hall.
A figure dressed in a black doublet and trews awaited them halfway into the room, and it took Blaine a moment to recognize Tormod Solveig without his armor. Tall, slender, with sharp features, crow-black hair, and dark eyes, Tormod looked younger off the battlefield, although his eyes had a world-weary glint to them. Given his apparent youth, it was hard to remember just how powerful he was as a necromancer.
“Glad everyone is still in one piece,” Tormod said, sparing them a perfunctory smile that did not reach his eyes. Blaine got the impression that Tormod did not smile often.
“With a few more scratches and dents,” Verner replied.
“I understand Blaine believes he has an alternative to our situation,” Rinka said, giving Blaine an appraising look. “We’ll be most interested to hear him out.”
Bleak Hollow’s great room looked more like a place to rally troops than the site for a state dinner. The walls were gray stone, and the room’s only embellishments were battle flags draped like tapestries along the sides of the room. A large iron chandelier hung in the middle of the common room. The only furnishings were large tables and benches, as if the room doubled as a mess hall. One of those large tables had been set with pewter chargers and goblets. Roasted venison and pheasant seasoned with onions and apples lay on large serving boards. Baskets of bread, platters of cooked carrots, parsnips, and turnips, along with tankards full of ale looked inviting.
“Come. Eat. We have a lot to talk about,” Tormod said, gesturing for them to follow him to the table.
“To our alliance,” Tormod said, lifting his tankard when they were seated. “And to a rebirth for Donderath.” The others murmured their agreement as they lifted their cups in a toast. Kestel had obtained a charm that would alert her to the presence of poison, and she made sure to sprinkle a few drops of the ale onto the ring charm before they drank. The stone remained dark, signifying that the ale was safe to drink.
“So cautious,” Rinka said, noting Kestel’s movements. “Even among allies?”
“I know how easy it is to kill,” Kestel replied nonchalantly. “There’s no truly ‘safe’ place except the grave.” She glanced toward Tormod. “And perhaps, not even there.”
For a while, conversation lulled as they ate. The food was well seasoned, tasty, and plentiful. After the last two days of camp rations, and three days of skirmishing, Blaine found the prospect of a good meal and passable ale almost irresistible.
“How long have you had problems with the nomads?” Blaine asked when he had eaten his fill and the others were sliding their empty plates away from them.
Tormod set down his tankard and blotted his lips with his napkin. “There have been raids as long as there have been nomads,” he replied. “Merrill paid them little attention, and most of the trading caravans that crossed to the Lesser Kingdoms hired mercenaries to make sure they got where they were going.”
“So you’ve had raids all along, or have they gotten worse of late?” Piran asked. It would be a mistake to count the tankards of ale Piran had consumed and guess about his sobriety. Piran could drink more than any man Blaine had ever met and still keep his wits about him and his aim true.
“The plains weren’t hit as hard by the Great Fire and the Cataclysm because there were no noble houses there,” Rinka replied. “But they paid dearly with the storms and the beasts. And for a while, the beasts were the equals of the nomads. The trade caravans stopped traveling the routes south. Most of the local traders paid tribute for protection. And after the Cataclysm, they had no goods to sell.”
“So now that the storms are gone and the beasts have been mostly destroyed, the nomads are back in business,” Verner summarized.
Rinka shrugged. “After a fashion. Their raids often leave behind gold and silver. They want tools, food, livestock, and weapons. And if they can’t find those, they’ll take hostages to barter for what they can’t steal.” She paused. “If it’s true that the Lesser Kingdoms were hit as badly as Donderath, then the nomads are probably fighting for their survival.”
“The raiders haven’t launched attacks on this level since the days of their greatest warrior, Bayard, centuries ago,” Tormod said. “He was the one who united the tribes and made them see themselves as one people. Bayard was a legend—almost a god to the Plainsmen.”
“We need a solution to the nomad problem, because we intend to expand our control westward,” Rinka said abruptly. “Tormod has spoken with the plains dead. The old spirits know things we’ve forgotten about plants that can survive drought, that are good for eating or making into cloth, plants that don’t grow farther east. If we can learn from them, we’ll have wares to trade, maybe even with the plains towns that survived and the Lesser Kingdoms.”
“I have no designs on the West,” Verner said. “My hands are full with my own lands, and the territory I gained after we destroyed Rostivan and Lysander. That’s plenty for me.”
Blaine shrugged. “We have enough to do rebuilding Castle Reach and the port, as well as the heartland. And since I doubt we’ve seen the last of Hennoch and Pollard, I’ve got no desire to tie up troops where I can’t easily bring them back if they’re needed.”
“So neither of you will oppose us extending our territory westward?” Tormod confirmed.
Blaine frowned. “Not unless it causes you to default on your oath to our alliance,” he cautioned. “We lose all that we’ve fought to gain if we can’t keep our core territories should another threat arise—and it will, sooner or later. We’re depending on you to do your part, and if you stretch yourself too thin or get tied up in fighting on the western frontier, you’re of no use to us.”
Tormod nodded. “Agreed. We have every intention of honoring our alliance. And you are correct to be cautious regarding Pollard. The dead do not hold him in high regard,” Tormod said.
“And of Pentreath Reese? Have your ghosts brought you any news?” Pollard, though mortal, was liegeman to Reese, an immortal talishte vampire. Reese had been judged and sentenced to torture and exile by the Elders among the talishte.
“Reese remains in his prison, for now,” Tormod replied. “But the ghosts fear Reese may soon be freed.”
“Probably by Pollard,” Piran said, making the name a curse. “It figures.”
Kestel shook her head. “Pollard can’t free Reese himself. He’s just a mortal, and Reese was imprisoned by the Elders—very powerful talishte. Someone would have to help him—which is why having his maker, Thrane, show up now is worrisome.”
“Surely Reese had a brood of his own,” Verner said. “And they would certainly wish to aid their master.”
“Maybe,” Blaine said, “and maybe not. From what Lanyon Penhallow has said, the talishte tend to be rather competitive. Knock off someone at the top and everyone else moves up. Maybe they don’t have the incentive—or the loyalty—to put Reese back on top.”
“Then you’d best watch Thrane carefully,” Rinka said. “Pack animals must have a leader. Reese’s imprisonment leaves a void, and nature always fills the empty places.”
“You’ve heard the news we had to share,” Tormod said. “Now I would learn your news.” He managed an awkward smile. “We get few visitors out here. News is always welcome.”
Verner told of his efforts to rebuild his forces after the Battle of the Northern Plains. “Now we need peace long enough to plant our crops and harvest them,” he finished. “Another hungry winter, and our own people are likely to turn on us.”
“You never said what you gained from helping to anchor the magic,” Kestel said with a disarming smile. Piran, Verner, and Tormod had been among those Blaine had chosen to be the new Lords of the Blood, who stood with him in a powerful ritual to bring the wild magic back under human control. Each of the Lords of the Blood had gained a magical benefit from the ritual, but when they had parted company to return to their respective lands, some had not yet realized what their new gift was or how to use it.
“From what we’ve been able to tell, magic doesn’t ‘stick’ to me,” Verner replied, looking self-conscious. “Magical attacks seem to slide off me.”
Blaine nodded. “Not a bad talent to come away with,” he said.
Rinka turned to Blaine. “Now, you said you had a way to turn the situation with the raiders around. Let’s hear it. I’m tired of burying good soldiers.”
Blaine looked from Rinka to Tormod to Verner. “You’ve noticed my men, Borya and Desya? The ones with the cat-slit eyes? They’re from the Western Plains, though they weren’t raiders. But they know the people, the way the Plainsmen think. And they’re certain that the attack-withdraw-wait-attack pattern is the raiders’ way of enabling both sides to size each other up—as potential allies, not enemies.”
Rinka gave Blaine a skeptical look. “They’ve killed a lot of men for nothing if that’s true.”
“The point is, we may be able to stop the killing—and create a valuable alliance,” Blaine said. “If you’re open to the idea.”
“Ally with the raiders?” Tormod asked sharply. “How could we ever trust them?”
“Solveig is right,” Verner said. “And why should they trust us?”
“They might not trust us,” Blaine replied, “but I think we’ve got someone they will trust—implicitly.”
The sun had set while they were dining, and Blaine hoped his guest would be punctual. Just then, one of the guards opened the door to the great hall and leaned in. “M’lord,” he said to Tormod. “There’s a talishte here who claims to have been invited by Lord McFadden.”
“Is this your doing?” Tormod asked, looking sharply at Blaine.
“Yes. And if you want the slaughter to end, you’ll hear what he has to say,” Blaine replied.
It was clear that doing so went against Tormod’s grain, but he gave a stiff nod. “Send him in.”
A moment later, a well-dressed, dark-haired man entered the great room. His clothing was simple but expensive, and he carried himself like someone accustomed to power. Shoulder-length black hair fell loose around his face, framing dark eyes and a dusky complexion. He looked like an aristocratic cousin to Borya and Desya—or to the raiders themselves. His walk and stance made it clear that he had been a man of war.
“Peace to you all,” the stranger said in a voice that still carried a trace of a Lesser Kingdoms accent. “I am Bayard, and I’ve come to save my people.”